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The Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s was a time of great unrest. While the movement was felt across the south, Birmingham, Alabama was known for its unequal treatment of blacks and became the focus of the Civil Rights Movement. Under the leadership of Martin Luther King Jr., president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, African-Americans in Birmingham, began daily demonstrations and sit-ins to protest discrimination at lunch counters and in public facilities. These demonstrations were organized to draw attention to the injustices in the city. The demonstrations resulted in the arrest of protesters, including Martin Luther King. King was arrested in Birmingham after taking part in a peaceful march to draw attention to the way that African-Americans were being treated there, their lack of voter rights, and the extreme injustice they faced in Alabama.
King immediately strives to justify the need for nonviolent direct action through his statement, "Several months ago the affiliate here in Birmingham asked us to be on call to engage in a nonviolent direct action program if such were deemed necessary." What is direct action? Direct action is a form of political activism which may include sit-ins, strikes, and demonstrations. King's explanation to the clergymen for protesting segregation began with an explanation of their actions, "Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue". In this case King was invoking the right of freedom of expression, not only freedom of speech but the freedom to assemble. The clergy and many of the citizens of Birmingham believed the demonstrations, sit-ins, and strikes, considered peaceful by King and his supporters, as a taunting and violation of the segregation laws in place in many of the southern states.
Within the first paragraphs of his letter King rebukes the many injustices of his people in Birmingham. King responded with dismay at the clergy's reference to him being an outsider. King stated that he had a reason for being in Birmingham and he was not an outsider as the clergymen claimed. He responded with a profound statement, "Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds." King explained that his purpose for being in Birmingham was due to the injustices within the city. He continued by comparing himself to the eighth century prophets in that he too was carrying a message - the gospel of freedom. King explicitly compared himself to the apostle Paul whose travels were extensive in spreading the gospel of Christ. Just as Paul left Tarsus to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ, King left Atlanta for Birmingham. He claimed that his job as a Christian minister was to attack injustice wherever it appeared. King's imprisonment could also be compared to the imprisonment of Paul.
King answered the clergymen's allegations that breaking the law was not the way to achieve the results - "Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that, an unjust law is no law at all". King did not believe that they have broken the law. Kings response to the clergymen was that a law that is not morally sound is not a law. King's statement supports the conservative theory of the Nature of Law in that law existed before man. The fundamental principles of law are to distinguish between that which is right and that which is wrong. Therefore, laws are made to protect the people not degrade and punish.
King defined just and unjust law as follows:
A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.
King wrote that a law could be just on the surface and unjust in its application. The example given was how he had been arrested on the charge of parading without a permit. He explained that there is nothing wrong in having a law which requires a permit for a parade, but that it becomes unjust when it is used to maintain segregation and to deny citizens their First Amendment privilege.
King connected the nonviolent civil disobedience or unjust laws to the revolutionary arguments of Thomas Jefferson. King's writings include, "...law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice, and when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress." In the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson argued that governments exist to protect basic human rights, "deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed."
King addressed civil disobedience, the active refusal to obey certain laws, demands and commands of a government or of an occupying power without resorting to physical violence, through his example of the refusal of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego to obey the laws of Nebuchadnezzar, on the ground that a higher moral law was at stake. Other examples of civil disobedience were incorporated into the letter. King wrote, "civil disobedience was demonstrated by the early Christians who were willing to face lions and the chopping blocks rather than submit to certain unjust laws of the Roman Empire." King understood completely that his audience was not the clergymen alone. So, while appealing to the Christian and Biblical beliefs and principles of the clergy, he included non-Biblical examples of civil disobedience as well - Socrates and the Boston Tea Party.
King responded to the clergymen's accusation that he was an extremist by countering with examples of extremists. King wrote, "Was not Jesus an extremist for love: 'Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.' Amos was an extremist for justice, 'Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.'" He continued providing examples of other extremists including the apostle Paul, Martin Luther, Abraham Lincoln, John Bunyan, and Thomas Jefferson.
King was concerned with the oppression of the African American. He continued by writing of the yearning for freedom of the African American. He wrote, "â€¦the United States Negro is moving with a sense of great urgency toward the promised land of racial justice." Using the analogy of the promise land was not accidental. The promise land was the Israelites land of freedom from their enslavement at the hands of the Egyptians. Â King quoted Abraham Lincoln, "This nation cannot survive half slave and half free," and Thomas Jefferson, "We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equalâ€¦"
Christianity played a major role in King's response to the clergymen. He shared his disappointment with the church as a whole. King believed that he would find support for the cause of justice within the community of the church. He wrote of the strength of the early Christians and of their rejoicing for being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. He also wrote of the weakness of the contemporary church and the concerns he had about Christianity losing its meaning. King was so distraught over the actions of the church that he found himself asking, "What kind of people worship here?" "Who is their God?" And, while disappointed, he responded with statements of love and hope.
As King concluded his letter he shared his belief that the struggle for freedom would be won, not only in Birmingham but across the nation, because the black man's destiny was tied up with the destiny of America and the goal of America is freedom.
King's letter from the Birmingham jail inspired a national civil rights movement. The goal was to completely end the system of segregation in every aspect of public life (stores, separate bathrooms and drinking fountains, etc.) and in job discrimination. The enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, that banned discrimination based on "race, color, religion, or national origin" in employment practices and public accommodations, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 reinforced the guarantees of full citizenship provided under the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth amendments. The passage of these two acts marked the end of the Jim Crow system in the South. The desegregation of public facilities was swiftly implemented. With the enforcement powers of the federal government enhanced, the desegregation of public schools was also initiated.